When artists confront buildings by the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the results can be eye-opening or disastrous. But as you know if you have visited New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the feisty architect, though he died 60 years ago, usually prevails.
Elkins Park’s Beth Sholom Synagogue, completed the same year as the Guggenheim in 1959, is one of the most important buildings of Wright’s late career. It appears like a mountain on its exterior, while its main sanctuary, one of the most thrilling spaces in the Philadelphia region, feels light and airy, like a vast tent.
Considering its importance, though, it is little visited.
The Beth Sholom Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit, nonreligious organization created to care for the building, has begun to tackle the problem. It has installed an excellent visitor center that tells the very interesting story of how a visionary rabbi, Mortimer J. Cohen, and a visionary architect were able to create the space. (Cohen actually drew a floor plan he sent to Wright. What chutzpah! And Wright used it.) The foundation has also offered lectures, including an architecture talk I was hired to give in January.
A new installation by artist David Hartt, The Histories (Le Mancenillier), which will be on view from Sept. 11 to Dec. 19, is another step to increase the building’s profile and audience. It was funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and curated by Cole Akers, curator of another mid-century landmark, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn.
Anyone who hasn’t seen Beth Sholom should take the opportunity to do so, since Hartt’s installation, filled with live orchids and fresh tropical vegetation, makes the building look better than it has in years.
That’s true even though, on its own as a work of art, The Histories (Le Mancenillier) probably has more meaning for its artist than for those who will come to see it.
Hartt, who was born in Montreal in 1967 and teaches art at the University of Pennsylvania, chose not to make his art about Wright’s building. Instead, the mixed-race artist made it about the African diaspora and its connection with the Jewish experience. Stories from the Torah — especially that of Moses and the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt — have long been central to American black religion.
As Akers notes in the show’s brochure, the Beth Sholom congregation did its own wandering as part of the mid-century white flight to the suburbs. It was founded 100 years ago at Broad and Courtland Streets in Logan, then moved out of the city, along with its members, as the neighborhood became increasingly black.
The original building, a substantial, brick and stone classical edifice, is now home to Beloved Saint John Evangelistic Church, a largely black congregation. “The relationship between these two congregations led Hartt to consider the constant movement of Black and Jewish communities as a result of political, economic, and social currents,” Akers writes.
Music that bridges histories
The person whom Hartt identified to link the larger Jewish and African diaspora stories is the pioneering American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). He was born in New Orleans to a Jewish father and a Creole mother who was originally from Haiti but fled at the time of the Haitian revolution.
Gottschalk studied in Paris, where he was in touch with prominent composers, including Frederic Chopin, who clearly had an influence on the piano music that permeates this mixed-media installation.
Gottschalk’s music is a fundamentally classical sound, incorporating American, Caribbean, and African elements. His Creole-influenced work Le Mancenillier, part of the musical program, is named for a sweet but poisonous tropical plant.
Hartt commissioned a new recording of several of Gottschalk’s pieces by the Ethiopian pianist and composer Girma Yifrashewa. It was recorded with nine microphones around and inside of the piano to create the sense that the entire sanctuary is itself a musical instrument.
When I visited the installation last week, Hartt was working with his audio consultant, Eugene Lew, also of Penn, to try to achieve this effect. It still needed work, he told me, but the intense sound in the space was impressive.
The visual art in the exhibition is largely contained in three small rooms outside the sanctuary, and takes its cue from Gottschalk’s biography and background.
In the first room, there is a 96-inch high-definition video screen showing footage taken, partly by a flitting drone-mounted camera, of swamps and jungles of Louisiana and Haiti. The second contains a tapestry based on a still from the footage, manufactured in Belgium. The third contains another video, this one slow and stolid to contrast with the first, along with another tapestry — a pot with an orchid in it — displayed sideways.
As you look at the contents of these rooms, you can hear bits of the Gottschalk music playing in the sanctuary. But you need to read the brochure carefully to make the many connections the artist intended. The artists’ iconography and allusions are just too idiosyncratic. Their meanings are opaque and most of them do not appear to relate to the synagogue.
A wondrous touch
Paradoxically, what’s wonderful about the exhibition is how it, at least temporarily, heals some of the problems of Wright’s building. Hartt has torn out the dusty artificial greenery from the planters Wright provided and replaced it with profuse, live tropical greenery. This alone makes an enormous difference.
He has also tackled the synagogue’s most vexing problem. It leaks, and not just a little. The same translucent walls and ceilings that make the sanctuary’s interior glow are the source of the water problem. The synagogue would probably have to be rebuilt with different materials to stop the leaks.
The congregation deals with this problem by deploying an enormous number of buckets and bowls, along with a few kiddie pools, to catch the water. These are taken away during services, but not when people tour the building.
Hartt told me that he felt he had to deal with the unsightly buckets, or else they would be considered part of his work.
He sees orchids as symbols of diaspora because their roots are in the air. In the sanctuary, Hartt has replaced the leak-collecting buckets with 170 pots of live orchids, some on three large platforms and others scattered about.
The idea is if a drip appears, one of the flowerpots can be moved beneath. It’s not a high-tech solution. Between now and December, it will be possible to test whether it works.
It’s difficult to imagine that the congregation and foundation will not seek a way to keep the live plants. And if the flowerpots, possibly planted with something less demanding than orchids, can successfully replace the buckets, one of the building’s biggest failings will, at least, be less unsightly.
If the exhibition can be an inspiration for those entrusted with the care of this great building, this could be one case where an artist encountered Frank Lloyd Wright, and everyone came out ahead.
The Histories (Le Mancenillier) by David Hartt
Sept. 11-Dec. 19, at Beth Sholom Synagogue, 8231 Old York Rd., Elkins Park
Hours: Self-guided tours Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.), free ($5 advance registration fee online). Guided tours focusing on the history of the synagogue Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays by advance registration only. Special events on select Sundays. Closed Saturdays and Sept. 25-Oct. 12.
Information: 215-887-1342 x-227 or thehistories.squarespace.com/exhibition